Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke first broached such a sale shortly after he took office in March, proposing to offer 73 million acres for leases. This part of the Gulf was the scene of arguably the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent spill of 215 million gallons of crude that fouled beaches from Louisiana to Florida.
Years later, the spill’s effects are still being felt, according to a report by the nonprofit group Oceana.
Scientists have detected hydrocarbons from the well in 90 percent of pelican eggs more than 1,000 miles away in Minnesota, where the birds spend summer after wintering along the gulf. Dolphins living in Barataria, La., have experienced mortality rates 8 percent higher than dolphin populations elsewhere, and their reproduction success dropped 63 percent.
British Petroleum, which owned the operation, had paid penalties in excess of $61 billion as of July 2016.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Interior Department division that oversees offshore leases, offered assurances that the environment would be protected as additional leases are sold in the gulf. But the agency largely focused on the resources that could be recovered there as part of what President Trump calls America’s energy dominance.
“American energy production can be competitive while remaining safe and environmentally sound,” said Vincent DeVito, Interior’s counselor for energy policy. “People need jobs, the Gulf Coast states need revenue, and Americans do not want to be dependent on foreign oil.”
The bureau estimated that up to a billion barrels of oil and up to 4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas could be recovered. Most of the sale will take place in the Gulf’s Central Planning Area off Louisiana and Mississippi.
“This is great news that our oil and gas industry in Louisiana sorely needs,” said Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.), one of 12 lawmakers and governors whose support was quoted in the announcement. “This is the largest sale in U.S. history, and it will create jobs and bolster our state and national economy. Our Louisiana workers are ready to go back to work.”
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) also declared his approval. “Mississippi welcomes Secretary Zinke’s action to carry out the president’s vision for American energy dominance,” Bryant said. “This will strengthen our state’s status as a leader in oil and gas exploration and create good jobs for hard-working Mississippians.”
Few conservation groups reacted to Interior’s announcement Tuesday, although several had called the unprecedented lease sale “a terrible idea” when Zinke first discussed it this spring. Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club’s Lands Protection Program, said it similarly opposed a bid by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, to open up 66 million acres to leases last year.
Manuel hinted at the reasons behind the muted response Tuesday. It’s “not really news,” he said of the actual announcement. While larger in scale, it is not significantly different from what Obama proposed. The gulf, Manuel said, has become “a sacrifice zone for the oil and gas industry.”